For the second consecutive year, a Brazilian team with a Portuguese coach won South America’s Copa Libertadores. For the second consecutive year, there was extraordinary late drama. But the neutral may not have quite the same affection for Abel Ferreira’s Palmeiras as for the Flamengo of Jorge Jesus, who won the 2019 title.
Much of this has to do with the conditions. Since football has resumed in Brazil post the coronavirus shutdown, the calendar has been punishing. On Saturday, Palmeiras were playing their 55th match since football restarted in late July. And the recent ones, including this final against fellow Brazilians Santos, have taken place in high summer heat.
A kick off time of 5 p.m. in the afternoon did much to guarantee that the game would be cautious. The heat in Rio de Janeiro was infernal, and the Maracana stadium is especially hot since it was rebuilt for the 2014 World Cup, with the extended roof ensuring that the temperatures stay high.
Santos made the obvious move in the conditions. Concerned about the Palmeiras counter-attack, they played an extra man in midfield, bringing in Sandry for Lucas Braga: they knew they had a long afternoon ahead of them.
True to their style, Palmeiras were unlikely to take any risks. They would bide their time and wait for their moment, trusting that their deeper squad gave them more options off the bench. Palmeiras would be quite happy for the game to go to extra time. Santos had to guard against being over-eager and falling into their trap.
The problem was that Santos were unable to trouble the Palmeiras defence. Star right winger Marinho was contained: He is all left foot, so Palmeiras made sure he could not cut inside. On the other flank, Yeferson Soteldo was a disappointment, seeming to lack the confidence to take on his opponent on the rare occasions that he was left one on one. Young centre-forward Kaio Jorge worked back ferociously, but found it hard to link the play. Their biggest threat came from the occasional attacking forays of left-back Felipe Jonatan.
Palmeiras, meanwhile, looked the more dangerous team, either from set pieces or from rapid breaks from winger Rony. But their main priority was containment, and centre-forward Luiz Adriano was left isolated.
Inside the last 20 minutes, Santos coach Cuca made his move. On came Braga, giving them four players up front and freeing Marinho to wander. Realising that the game had become more open, Palmeiras introduced Breno Lopes, another quick striker.
It seemed that the Santos change was making the bigger impact. Suddenly their game found a new fluidity. They came close to taking the lead when a shot from Diego Pituca was spooned out by keeper Weverton, and Jonatan hit just wide from the rebound.
Two things then changed the momentum. Kaio injured himself going for an overhead kick. With a paucity of options on the bench, Cuca replaced him with a defender, and also reluctantly replaced the injured Jonatan. It brought the Santos attacking momentum to a halt.
It seemed as if the game was drifting towards extra time, but then Cuca got involved in a touchline dispute with Palmeiras right-back Marcos Rocha. The pair were together at Atletico Mineiro when they won the 2013 Libertadores, but now they were squabbling on the touchline after Cuca grabbed the ball and then pushed it away in an attempt to prevent a quick restart. The referee sent Cuca off, and tempers were frayed in as the players became involved in a spell of jostling.
The outcome was that Santos switched off and lost concentration at the vital moment. Rony was given too much space deep on the right to bend in a superb cross to the far post, where Breno climbed above Para to guide his header back across goal and inside the corner. It was the 10th minute of stoppage time, and there was no way back for Santos.
The late drama had thrown up an unlikely hero. Had highly rated teenager Gabriel Veron been fit, then Breno would almost certainly not have been brought on. Instead, he was the man who allowed Palmeiras to celebrate in the manner of 1999 — the only previous year they got their hands on the title.
Celebrations will have to be short lived, though. Palmeiras fans are frequently teased about their lack of a world club title. All their local rivals have one, now it is their turn. They head off to the Middle East for the Club World Cup, where they will be in action next Sunday in a semifinal against the winners of Tigres of Mexico and Ulsan Hyundai of South Korea. Palmeiras will be dreaming against a final versus European champions Bayern Munich, aware that on their return they face a two legged final of the Brazilian Cup against Gremio.
In such an overcrowded calendar, it is hardly a surprise that the Libertadores has been won by a team with a pragmatic, risk free approach.